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On The Rise and Fall of Radical Political Economy In US

The professional eyes of the [social scientist] are on the down people, and the professional palm of the [social scientist] is stretched toward the up people … he is an Uncle Tom not only for this government and ruling class but for any government or ruling class. 
-Martin Nicolaus, “Remarks at ASA Convention,” The American Sociologist 4, 2 (May 1969): 155
The rise and fall of radical political economy in the US is rooted in the rise and ultimate decline of social radicalization there of the 1960s and 1970s. This radicalization was dominated by fuzzy New Left (NL) ideological critiques of American capitalism, notwithstanding that many radicals of the time rejected such critiques as inadequate.

By Al Campbell
Since the term NL was created to refer to everyone with a radical critique of the system other than the ‘Old Left’ (OL), it included many different strands of political thought and ideologies. In addition, in the early years of the NL in the mid-sixties, many prominent members and groups pointedly declared themselves ‘anti-ideological,’ asserting that pure activism would replace ideology. Most currents in the NL fairly quickly came to realise that they had an ideology whether they acknowledged it or not, and so turned to its conscious development. In practice this resulted in approaching one or another of the orientations that existed in the (small) US left, above all Stalinism, Social Democracy, Anarchism, (US) Radical Populism or Marxism. The various NL individuals and currents typically eclectically mixed these and, in addition, continually made major changes to their theories and ideologies over relatively short periods of time. All of these points together indicate the need for caution when referring to ‘a NL ideology’. For a compact treatment of a significant number of the threads in the US NL ideological tapestry, see Young (1977). I will simply refer to ‘the vague NL ideology.’ It was largely a product of the specific history of that US radicalisation. Above all, it was defined by things in the existing society that it was against. Critically absent was an alternative based on a radical social theory – by implication, the alternative was just to eliminate the problems.

Two central issues divided the NL from the OL. The first was the issue of class. The OL had always recognised the need to fight against all forms of oppression. For example, many though far from all of the leaders of the fight against racism both after and before WWII were part of the OL or strongly influenced by it. But the OL at the same time argued that class oppression played a special role in the maintenance and reproduction of capitalism. Capitalism’s goal was the accumulation of capital which required and rested on class oppression and exploitation. Other forms of oppression could be just as individually damaging as class oppression, but they did not play the same role in the continual reproduction of capitalist social relations. The NL, to the contrary, argued strongly for the absolute theoretical symmetry of all forms of oppression as sources of exploitation, leading to the political idea of ‘multi-vanguardism.’ One of the founding documents of the premier NL RPE group in the USA (discussed further below) reflected this concept: ‘The organization opposes all exploitation on the basis of class, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other social/economic/cultural constructs’ (URPE, 1968). As the NL went on to develop its ideologies, it drew on (among other sources) C. Wright Mills’ (1956) model of elites based on power, and consciously opposed this to the Marxist concept of class based at its deepest level on economic exploitation. Mills’ concept was particularly suited to a view of multiple, conceptually equivalent, exploitations.

The other central issue for the NL presented itself Janus-like with two related but conceptually very different faces. Negatively (in several senses of that word), the NL exuded a politically primitive anti-authoritarianism. This was an important endogenous contribution to the NL’s general inability to create sustainable institutions. Positively, the NL championed the concept of Participatory Democracy against both the OL and bourgeois democracy. Long after the NL disappeared, this latter idea has remained as a permanent contribution (or ‘rediscovery,’ as the idea existed before the NL), and is still being debated and developed by many (proto) social movements in the USA that continue to fight against capitalism.
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  1. Excellent stuff David! Thank you for sharing!Hälsningar från Sverige!

    1. Tack! Jag hoppas att träffa dig personligen dag. Sverige är vackert. Jag hoppas att få tillbaka det snart. Min fru är från Malmö.

  2. David Fields,

    In your views, to what extent, if any, did the New Left in the U.S. and Europe contribute to the formation of Post-Modernism?


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